Letting go: Kenny Farquharson on fathers and sons

Spectrum magazine, Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 2008

KENNY FARQUHARSON was just 14 when his father was killed in a car crash. On Father’s Day, he reflects on the key events that have made him the dad he has become

DECEMBER 10, 1976

SATURDAY morning, and dim light is finding its way through a gap in the curtains. My bedroom is pretty typical for a 14-year-old boy in 1976. The walls are painted deep purple in honour of my favourite band. The posters on the walls are as follows: Ritchie Blackmore wringing a guitar solo out of a white Stratocaster; a map of Scotland showing coats–of–arms of the major clans; Roger Dean’s cover artwork for the Uriah Heep album Demons and Wizards; and, reflecting a teenage obsession borne of a summer holiday in a caravan at Drumnadrochit, an artist’s impression of what the Loch Ness Monster might look like. Still half-asleep, I’m aware of movement downstairs and muffled voices.

The plan for today is much the same as any other Saturday. A long lie-in, Football Focus on the telly and a number 20 bus into Dundee city centre. Then a mooch around my two favourite shops: Groucho’s, a second-hand record store; and Halfords, where I’ll covet the bicycle lamps and gleaming tool kits. Dad will be home — he was getting in late last night after a few days working down south.

The bedroom door opens and my mother comes in. She sits down gently on the edge of my bed.

“Wake up, Ken,” she says softly, her hand on my shoulder. “I need to speak to you.”

I pull myself up on to my pillow and look at her. Something is wrong. Her face is drawn and she has red bags under her eyes. She has obviously been crying. She is wearing her best clothes.

“Ken…”

There is a tremor in her voice. She looks away for a moment. Then she brings her eyes back to mine and holds them there.

“You know that your dad was driving home last night?”

She is talking very slowly and deliberately, giving each word its full weight.

I nod.

“Well…”

A breath, let out long, like a sigh.

“There was an accident.”

An accident. My dad’s been in an accident. He’ll be in hospital. We’ll need to go and see him. We’ll take sweets.

I ask: “Is he OK?”

“It was a bad accident. He was seriously hurt.” A long pause. “Ken…”

My mother’s eyes have never been so blue before.

“Your dad died last night.”

All I have of the following days is fragments. The funeral is at SS Peter & Paul’s, a red-brick Catholic church where my wee brother Gerry and I used to be altar boys. I remember the weight of my mum hanging on my arm as I help her into the front pew. I remember my aunties in their black lace mantillas. I remember the priest incanting the words that still send a chill through me: “Saints of God, come to his aid! Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!” I remember walking out of the church to the echo of ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord’, and the line: “His truth is marching on.” I remember the smell of freshly dug earth. I remember the feel of the rough cord in my hands as my brother and I help lower our father’s coffin into the grave. And I remember the dirty jokes my big cousin Scott tells me at the reception in the Queen’s Hotel.

At the time of my father’s death my mother is already in poor health. She is pregnant. My parents’ blood groups are rhesus incompatible. This means that when pregnant my mother’s immune system starts to produce antibodies that act against the baby’s blood. As the first child, I was healthy. My brother was born premature and was lucky to survive. But through the 1960s and early 1970s my mother lost four babies, including twins.

Pregnant again at the age of 38, she and my father — their names are Nancy and Jim — are determined to do all they can to save this child. Doctors suggest a radical new treatment. It involves my mother undergoing a blood transfusion every single day of her pregnancy.

A week after my father’s death she can still feel the baby kick. Then, in the middle of January, all movement stops. The dead baby is induced. In the operating theatre the body is baptised, and the nurse asks my mother: “What name?” She says one word: “Jimmy.” The nurse is unsure if, through the drugs, my mother is answering the question or calling out for my father.

For many months, maybe as long as a year, I dream every night that my father is still alive. I dream whole days with him still here — dropping us off at school, sitting down to tea with us, watching the telly. These dreams are lifelike and utterly convincing. Sometimes when I wake I pack the wrong books for school because in my head I’m a day out of synch.

Any physical evidence of my father is pounced on. A tiger-eye cufflink. A burgundy-coloured Parker pen. His driving licence. I decide to start shaving and I am elated to find tiny beard trimmings in his Remington electric razor. In an attempt to stop smoking he had taken to puffing on a tobacco substitute bought from Napier’s Herbalist, in Edinburgh, made from dried honeysuckle. For months I sniff the empty box until all it smells of is cardboard.

I decide to change my signature to incorporate the lop-sided way my dad wrote his Js and Fs, and the way he finished off with a flourished N. I do this because I’ve decided that every time I sign my name, Kenneth James Farquharson, my father will be there, through me and in me. I have decided to keep my father alive.

APRIL 23, 2001

It’s my favourite bit of the journey north — the moment the train edges out onto the Tay rail bridge and the estuary opens up before you, an expanse of sky and river, the city of Dundee spread out along the northern bank. The journalist James Cameron once said this sight reminded him of Naples, and he half-expected to find fishermen singing and tending their nets on the shore. Now that was a man with some romance in his soul.

Usually I shift over to the left-hand side of the train and look out for the seals that like to bask on the rocks near the bridge’s landfall, but on this occasion I’m distracted by other thoughts. Today I am 15 days short of my 39th birthday. I am exactly the age my father was when he died in 1976. For years I’ve watched this date edge slowly closer, not knowing quite what to make of it. I don’t fear it, yet I know it’s an important milestone in my life. Maybe it’s more than that — maybe it’s a pivot point around which my life will turn. I know it has to be marked in some way, and that’s why I’m travelling to Dundee. I have a suspicion it might mark me too.

From the railway station I walk up through the town and take a pilgrimage around some of the family shrines. When I was small our first two homes were tenement flats in the Hilltown area of Dundee. Neither of them had a bath or a shower — you washed at the sink. The toilet on the stair was shared with three other families. The first place we lived, at 77 Hilltown, was two rooms and a scullery, and our landlord was the Pope. The tenement was owned by the Catholic Church, so it was known locally as The Holy Land.

Lacking a proper garden, we had an allotment where my father would get my brother and me to push around earth in tiny red wheelbarrows. Holidays were at Butlins in Ayr, or a tent on a beach near Arbroath. On one day-trip to Edinburgh, money must have been particularly tight. Instead of going to a caf, Dad brought along a camping stove and a kettle, and we had a ‘biley-up’ in Princes Street Gardens. Knowing Edinburgh as I now do, I can imagine the looks from the locals.

By trade my father was a time-served toolmaker. To give my brother and me an idea of what he did for a living he would fix an electric drill in a vice, turning it into a rudimentary lathe. Then he would stick a pencil or a piece of doweling in the drill bit, and with a sharp chisel show us how to turn and shape the wood. One of his fingers had a chunk missing from the tip, a souvenir of a time when he should have been more careful with the machine tools he operated in the Timex toolroom.

Later, looking for better wages, he took a job with a company that sold carbide tools to engineering companies. He was effectively a sales rep, but he disliked the term. He wasn’t just selling the tools, he was demonstrating them as well. On his business cards it said “carbide engineer”. The career switch meant more money, a better house and — the family’s pride and joy — a company car: a bright yellow N-reg Ford Cortina. It was the car he was driving the night he died.

I stop off in a couple of Hilltown pubs, ending up in the Ellenbank Bar. It’s on the corner of a street where many of my relatives used to live, in a tenement with hideous gargoyles elaborately carved in the sandstone under the windows — the work, according to family lore, of itinerant Italian craftsmen who worked on the great cathedrals. The pub is a soulless boozer with a surly barman. I consider getting drunk, but it doesn’t feel right. My father hardly ever drank alcohol — except for a whisky and lemonade at New Year. And anyway, I can’t postpone my next appointment any longer.

On the walk to the Eastern Necropolis I pass a corner shop with a bucket full of daffodils outside the door. They are Cortina yellow. I buy the lot. The old section of the Eastern is an atmospheric Victorian arrangement of obelisks and angels on a small landscaped hill. But the new section is flat, with graves laid out in straight rows in the shadow of DC Thomson’s printing works. My father’s grave is near the south-western corner, under a cherry blossom tree planted by my grandfather. The stone is a simple slab of polished granite, rough and unfinished on the sides and top, and set with black leaded lettering. It reads:

IN LOVING MEMORY OF

MY BELOVED HUSBAND

AND OUR DEAR DAD

JAMES C FARQUHARSON

DIED 10 DECEMBER 1976

AGED 38

R.I.P.

I find the stone splattered with birdshit. I haven’t come prepared for this. I should have brought a bucket and a sponge. I’ve only got a handkerchief. So I wet it at a standpipe and wipe the stone clean. Then I do the same to the other family stones, which are all just a few paces away: my four grandparents; my mother’s brother David, dead at 37 in another car crash, 15 months after the one that killed my father; my wee cousin Iain, who once played chess for Scotland and who died aged 23. From there it’s a short walk to the grave of one of my mother’s lost babies, the only one that was given a proper burial.

Family duties completed and daffodils distributed, I stand alone at my father’s grave for the first time in years. I’m not here for some kind of spiritual experience. I’m an atheist. I’ve long ago stopped believing my father is actually watching over me. Anyway, I’ve no need for the supernatural when my father is such a natural part of me. He is hardwired into who I am.

I know the memory I have of him is unreliable. It’s a collage of moments and mannerisms, half-remembered, half-imagined, partial in every sense, but still true. His eyes when he smiled; his skinny legs; his intellectual curiosity; the birthday parties he organised up the Sidlaw Hills, when we’d take a huge frying pan and cook sausages on an open fire; the way he smoked fags; the way he chuckled; the way he closed his eyes when he sang ‘Danny Boy’ at parties; the long evenings he debated theosophy and Scottish Nationalism with his cousin Freddie, while my brother and I listened in the corner.

In my late teens I realised my loss had the potential to sour me, permanently. It could harden my heart. F**k the world that could do this thing to me! Losing my father could, if I let it, become an excuse for bastard behaviour. Yet I also understood that I was not at its mercy. It could damage me or it could shape me. I could choose. What won the day was my simple need for my dead father to be proud of me. I made my choice, and I chose to try to be more like him. It was a tall order. His essence was his calm; his comfort within his own skin; his ability to put people immediately at their ease; his commitment to his family; his ability to make his sons feel completely loved. This was the kind of man I wanted to be. More to the point, this was the kind of father I wanted to be.

He became a lodestar, an aid to navigation. But at the risk of sounding like Patience Strong, even with the stars to guide you, you have to find your own course. I’ve come to understand that I can be inspired by my father and his values, but I have to be a man for my own time, and for my own circumstances.

When an author writes a book, he usually includes an acknowledgements page. After thanking everyone who has helped him, he usually adds: “Any errors or omissions are, however, wholly my own.” That’s how I now feel about my father. He was a good man. I believe he was the best man I’ve ever known. I’m proud to be his son. But he died a long time ago and left me to find my own way. Through my own choices, my own actions, my many mistakes and my small triumphs, my life is wholly my own.

At the graveside the tears come. Metaphorically, this is when I must shake my father’s hand, hug him close and look him in the eye. We are two men who are exactly the same age. But only one of us is going to get any older. I stand under the cherry blossom and say a kind of goodbye.

APRIL 1, 2008

I once saw a question scrawled on a scrap of paper, pinned to an office notice board. It read: “What if the hokey-cokey is what it’s all about?” I’ve never really had many ‘hokey-cokey’ moments, wondering what it’s all about, pondering why I’m here and what gives my life meaning. Even when I was in my late teens and early 20s I’d always had a pretty good idea. For me it was all about being a father.

This may not make any sense, but I was a father before I had children. I knew it was what would define me and give me worth. Given what happened to me when I was 14, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Being a father is who and what I am. It has shaped and sometimes skewed many of the decisions I’ve made in my life, in my relationships and my career. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My experience of being a son and my experience of being a father have been hard to separate. At times they’ve not even been two sides of the same coin; they’ve been the same thing. Fathers and sons are a motif in my family: my dad was one of two brothers; he had two sons; my brother has two sons and I — lucky man — also have two sons.

No prizes for guessing the name of my first-born. My wife Caron gave birth to James seven minutes after midnight on the morning of August 30, 1993. He was a sleepy wee baby with long, thick black hair stuck up in a spike like a punk. All I can remember clearly of that morning in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion, as I held my son for the first time, are two powerful emotions. The first was relief — that he was healthy and his mother was OK. The second I can only describe as a sense of arrival — my own as well as his. James’s brother Ruairidh was delivered on March 26, 1996, shouting and bawling and making sure the world knew he was there. He’s rarely shut up since.

I hope I’ve been a good father to my boys. I’m aware that the experience of losing a loved one so young has shaped the kind of parent I’ve been. In particular it has given me an acute awareness of physical peril. At various times over the years I’ve felt overwhelmed by the realisation of just how fragile my sons are. They’re big, physical, athletic boys. But at times I’ve found it hard to control a nauseating fear about how easily those strong bones could break and how easily that skin could tear.

Often my boys have lost patience with my perpetual reminders about safety gear, taking care and watching out. “Dad, you’re a safety freak,” has been a common refrain. These days it’s more under control, to the extent that I can watch James leave the skin of one leg and one arm on a mountain bike trail in Glentress, and I can advise him to get back on the saddle as soon as possible.

Everyone thinks their own children are great, and I’m no exception. I love them so much I sometimes feel my heart is going to burst. Ru, now 12, is a wonderfully sweet boy, with a kindly nature and a surreal sense of humour. A skateboarder, he lives in a world dominated by ollies, kick-flips, fakeys, pops and shove-its. James is my height, a young man with a big heart, his long hair dyed black with a white streak in the front. I love the way he moves — with confidence, grace and a touch of swagger. “James Farquharson the second,” he sometimes calls himself. He gets ‘Jamesie’ at home, but I’ve noticed some of his pals have started calling him ‘Jimmy’. He’s 14, the age I was when my father died.

Once again, this was a day I’d seen coming for a while. When James reached 14 years, seven months and two days he’d be the exact age I was on December 10, 1976. Obviously I didn’t want to make too much of this with him — it should be a milestone in my life, not his. But inevitably I find myself comparing the two 14-year-olds, one from 1976 and one from 2008. I look at James and I’m astonished at how much more mature he is compared to myself at that age. Even his younger brother, at 12, is far more grown-up than I was at 14. I don’t recall having a personality at all. They both have substance and character.

Like all parents, I have worries about the teenage years my sons are heading into. There have already been a couple of, er, incidents. I have no template for how to be a father to a young man in his mid-to-late teens. I never got to the teenage rebellion stage with my own father. I’m feeling my way by instinct. It sometimes crosses my mind that the next argument might be the one when my teenage son stops talking to me and only starts again when he’s 24. Ultimately, you just have to trust your children, and trust yourself.

James is due to reach the date circled in my diary during the 2008 Easter break, when we are away on a big family holiday to the Far East. It turns out to be a fantastic trip, the highlight being six days in Tokyo. One evening, after a tough day’s sightseeing at Shinto shrines and teenage clothes shops, Caron and Ru need an early night. So James and I head off for a night-time wander through Shinjuku. It’s just like the Tokyo of your imagination — neon advertising hoardings straight out of Blade Runner, tiny yakitori stalls that have been there since the 1950s; and amusement halls with endless rows of people playing pachinko, a baffling kind of pinball game. It’s mid-evening and the streets are already full of roaming packs of salarymen, sober-suited but utterly drunk.

Some readers will no doubt disapprove, but I tell James I’m going to buy him his first proper beer, a father-and-son rite of passage that I was denied. He’s delighted — discreetly so, of course, because at his age it’s not cool to be too excited about anything. We pick a suitably seedy side street and duck into the first bar we come across. It’s down two flights of stairs in a tiny basement, and it’s packed. Our luck is in — it’s a fantastic little drinking hole full of smoke and chatter and groovy music. Using the international sign language of thirst I order two small draft beers. They are poured slowly, from tall metal taps, while James drinks everything in with his eyes. The glasses are put on the bar, a generous froth spilling over the top. I pick them up and hand one to my son. It’s a big moment. We catch each other’s eye and start laughing. Then we clink glasses and toast the future.

Kenny Farquharson is assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday